Service learning is a notion sweeping across higher education today. The idea is to combine a student's classroom knowledge with practical, related service.
It is not uncommon these days for service projects to be a required part of an economics or business class. In certain classes, term papers are replaced with community service reflection journals.
The basic tenet of service learning is serving to learn and learning to serve. Students go beyond the chalk and talk of a classroom and apply learned principles to make life a little better for others -- not a bad idea in a society focused on the almighty dollar and beset by what's-in-it-for-me attitudes.
As a university professor, I am a firm believer in the pedagogical power of service. It not only narrows the gap between theory and practice, but it also bridges the "out there" and "in here" mentality university life often fosters. Most important of all, service promotes deep inner learning that affects lives forever.
Alexander Astin, a renowned UCLA scholar, has spent the better part of his career researching the impact university life has on students. After positing a number of ideas on what affects students, he has come to the conclusion that "spiritual" (internal) aspects of learning are every bit as, if not more, significant than things external. Reflecting on my own experiences and observations, I wholeheartedly agree with Astin's conclusions.
I offer one of many encouraging examples. This one comes from a small farm nestled in the foothills of Laie.
On any given Saturday one can find 20 to 30 Brigham Young University-Hawaii students weeding, planting and harvesting crops, not for class or for themselves, but for the welfare of others. The 5-acre farm was started two years ago to provide small vegetable gardens to help married students supplement their meager budgets.
Since its inception, the farm has evolved into family plots and a cooperative farm of bananas, papaya, corn, taro, sweet potatoes and carrots.
The produce from the farm is not sold or traded. Everything is given to married student families and widows in the community. What is most remarkable about the whole enterprise is that it is done with voluntary labor. Students who work the farm each Saturday -- and there have been hundreds -- are there simply to serve. The only compensation, aside from a small bag of produce they may take with them at the end of the morning, is an invaluable lesson about life.
Certainly nothing teaches more about life than the principles of the harvest. Pests and weeds, like problems, are part of life.
Crops, just like other endeavors, will sometimes fail despite best efforts. Farming, like life, requires hard work yet can be immensely satisfying. Most important of all, these students are learning principles of "pure religion" (James 1:27). No amount of seat time in a pew will ever compensate for getting out and practicing what is preached.
No university credit is granted for these students' early morning labors, yet they are gaining an education far beyond anything they might gain in a classroom.
On any given Saturday in Laie, service teaches; students learn; everyone benefits.
Norman Evans is on the faculty of Brigham Young University-Hawaii's English Language Teaching and Learning Department. He is president of the BYUH married student stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.